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Cardinal Virtues

Ed Koch remembers a friendship that transcended religion and politics.

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As told to Maer Roshan

I first met the cardinal shortly after he became archbishop in 1984. I was part of the group that assembled in St. Patrick's to welcome him at his first homily. He stood up there, and at some point, he got this funny look and looked over this audience of 3,000 people -- all the power brokers in the city -- and he said, "How'm I doin'?" And after the laughter subsided, he said, "I'm asking the mayor of Scranton!" Well, of course, that endeared him to me right away.

We started having dinners together, about six a year, half of them at the cardinal's residence, half of them at Gracie Mansion. Breakfasts were more frequent and informal. For breakfast at the rectory, they'd have eggs and potatoes, bacon, tomatoes, but the cardinal wouldn't eat that. Every day he just ate cold cereal. He wasn't a man for luxuries. I worried about him sometimes -- he was a workaholic and a chronic insomniac. He didn't take care of himself.

In time we became friends -- not that we didn't have arguments. Of course, with the Catholic Church, they all centered around sex. He fought my administration on condoms in schools and on abortion. A month after I became mayor, I issued an executive order to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in government, housing, and education. Later, we resolved that no one doing business with the city would be allowed to discriminate, either. The cardinal said to me, "You can't issue an order that is binding on the Church. We're exempt." I said, "No, Cardinal, you're not exempt." And he said, "We're gonna sue you." It was the first of many lawsuits. We disagreed intensely on homosexuality, on abortion, on other things. The bottom line was, for him, these were sins. I disagree, but how could I persuade someone who believes it's a sin? But I believe that over time he came, not to change, but to be more accepting. He wasn't a man who hated.

I'll tell you when we really became close. One afternoon, I was called to Bellevue after a cop, Stephen McDonald, was shot. His spine was broken. The doctors told me he was dying. His family, his in-laws, his wife -- this scared young woman -- were all praying for him downstairs. I was overwhelmed. I wept. I called the cardinal and said, "Your Eminence, I've never done this before. But I need you. This young cop is dying. His family is very religious, and they need comfort. Could you come over?" He said, "I'll be right there." And he came down and comforted the family and embraced me until I composed myself. That night, we saw one another revealed. I don't like people to see me crying. But with him I wasn't ashamed. It felt right.

After that, he was always there when I was troubled. In 1986, after the corruption crisis, I really thought about killing myself. I was clinically depressed, in such emotional pain I can hardly describe it. I couldn't get out of bed. Then, one Sunday morning, the cardinal called. He said, "Listen, Ed, I know that you feel terrible. I just want you to know that nobody blames you. Everyone knows you're an honest man. And I want you to know that you're in my prayers." And I said, "Your Eminence, I can't tell you how much I appreciate this call. It means so much to me." He said, "No, not at all." I said, "Oh, yes, Your Eminence. You don't understand how important it is . . . I mean, the Lubavitcher Rebbe didn't call me."

I'm a very proud Jew, but the cardinal came to be my mentor in spiritual matters. On many issues, his integrity and sense of what's right and wrong became my guide. Even after I was no longer mayor, our friendship continued. The night I lost to David Dinkins, my family came back with me to Gracie Mansion. It was a little after midnight. And suddenly, there was the cardinal. The cops didn't even call in to announce him. He just walked in. He also came to the shiva when my brother died. Compassion was his greatest gift.

The last time I saw him was a few days before Christmas. I went by his house with a gift, the face of the Madonna from the Pietà, which I bought for him at the Met. I knocked on the door and told the housekeeper that I would leave it with her. But the cardinal insisted I come in. He was dining with a dozen friends from his days at the seminary. He seemed energetic and very happy. I never saw him again.

When I had my stroke in 1987, I asked him to officiate at my funeral if I died, even though it would be a Jewish ceremony. He said he would. What shocked me after he got sick was the realization that this vital, irrepressible guy wouldn't outlive me after all. I'm not a very religious man, but toward the end I prayed every day, asking that he be saved. I loved him.


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